Winter 2006

Back with a flourish

The twentieth century was not a good time for swashes, often described as the ‘curly bits added on to make type look fancy’. During the previous four centuries swashes were often an integral part of refined, elegant typography, but by the 1990s they had become a symbol of bad taste, relegated to the status of floral wallpaper. Perhaps this was because of their ubiquity in the 1970s, or because few of the people who used them with such zeal had the kind of restraint common in the preceding centuries.

Swashes are like salad dressing: great as a condiment, but you wouldn’t want to drink a whole glass. For a type designer, swashes provide an opportunity for the kind of unfettered self-expression that is usually found only in lettering and calligraphy. Well crafted swash characters tease out characteristics that already exist in a typeface and proudly put them on display. When poorly crafted or poorly used, swash characters become a clumsy parody, inadvertently making a mockery of the letters around them.

Recently though, interest in swash characters has been rekindled by a growing acceptance from type designers and graphic designers of the OpenType font format, which provides the ability to include hundreds of alternate characters in a single font. This interest is compounded by a resurgence of taste for ornamentation in general and specifically for 1970s and 80s graphic style, ironic or not.

Type designer and lettering artist Ed Benguiat drew many of the swashes to emerge from Photo-Lettering, Inc and International Typeface Corporation (ITC) in New York in the 1970s, including ITC Bookman and Benguiat Caslon. House Industries has been collaborating with Benguiat since 2003, and will soon bring Photo-Lettering back to life for the 21st century, swashes and all. (Note: I am involved, in a team that also includes Ken Barber and Erik van Blokland.)

And if we are lucky, maybe graphic designers will use a little more restraint this time…

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